Category Archives: Suburbs

Ansan Multicultural Food Street: Noodles Worth Traveling Pho

A question I get asked a lot by people is “What food do you miss the most from Australia?” They’re probably expecting an answer that has something to do with Vegemite or meat pies or avocados or kangaroos. But truthfully, what I really miss most is the ethnic food. One of the greatest things about Sydney is how multicultural it is, and all the amazing, authentic food that comes along with that. I get cravings for random things all the time… in fact I can give you a list of the top ten foods that I miss right off the top of my head:

1. Kebab
2. Pork roll
3. Yum cha
4. Pho
5. Hainanese chicken rice
6. Laksa
7. Pad thai
8. Indian curry
9. Lebanese meat plate complete with falafel, garlic sauce, hummus, tabbouleh and bread.
10. Wonton noodle soup

Thai curry would make that list too, if only I didn’t have a life time supply of Marion’s Kitchen and other miscellaneous curry pastes in my pantry thanks to the black market curry smuggling operation I have going on.

And yes, there are versions of these things available in Korea (except Hainanese chicken and laksa . . . IF YOU’RE MALAYSIAN OR SINGAPOREAN AND YOU’RE READING THIS YOU NEED TO MOVE TO KOREA BECAUSE THERE IS A MASSIVE MARKET OPPORTUNITY HERE FOR YOUR DELICIOUS FOODS) but they all seem to be lame Koreanised imitations of the real thing and/or come with premium “foreign food” price tag. You can get a cheap kebab in Itaewon but it’s really just a glorified chicken salad wrap. You can also get delicious, authentic Turkish food but it’ll cost you more than 20 bucks for an iskender plate. I miss Auburn and Parramatta and Granville and Harris Park and Haymarket and Greenacre and Eastwood and Haberfield! I’m back in Sydney for a week in October, but that’s already more suburbs than days I will have to see them again!

So I’m always complaining, “Wah wah wah, this pho tastes like dishwater… whinge whine whinge, a pork roll without pate and pickled carrots is NOT A PORK ROLL, etc etc” And then one day, somebody tells me that there’s this magical place on the outskirts of Seoul called “Ansan.” The pho there is actually good, they tell me, and actually made and eaten by actual Vietnamese people. It’s the Cabramatta of Seoul. Where the bulk of Seoul’s migrant population live, work, and eat. Not only is there good Vietnamese food, but there’s also Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Uzbek… it’s the most multicultural place you’ll find in this largely homogeneous country.

I made it my mission to visit as soon as I had the opportunity. It’s an hour away by subway which is a long way to travel for a bowl of pho, but I was quite confident that it was going to be worth it.

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The “Multicultural Food Street” of Ansan is right opposite the station and stretches several blocks. We went on a Saturday night when the area is alive with hungry locals and curious visitors. We decided to walk around and explore for a little while before we sat down for dinner.

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As I walk around, I start tripping out. are we still in Korea? Did the subway take us through a magic portal into a different universe? There are signs everywhere in languages that are NOT Korean OR English … OH MY G… IS THAT WHAT I THINK IT IS?! IS THAT A FREAKING BANH MI CART?!

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YES! OMGOMGOMG IT’S A BANH MI CART!!! A REAL VIETNAMESE SANDWICH CART!!

At this point, Matt had to tell me to calm down and lower my voice. It looked like the cart had closed shop for the evening, but I vowed to be back again during lunch hours.

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We walked down the main plaza and there were just ALL KINDS of street food that I had never even seen before. Signs we couldn’t read. Languages that I couldn’t even identify. Shop owners we couldn’t communicate with. Almost all traces of Korea had been taken over by foreigners.

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“Excuse me, what is that big round thing?”

“This? It is like pizza. Very good!”

“Pizza? Is it like a roti?”

*blank look*

“Is it sweet? Savoury?”

*blank look*

“How much is it?”

“Very delicious! Just two thousand!”

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Even though we didn’t know what half the stuff was – it all looked delicious. I saw this lady’s spread of meats and got excited thinking it was Chinese BBQ, but on closer inspection it was mostly offal and offcuts. Not quite brave enough to try it, but still happy to see something completely different and exciting.

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See the big red words that say “개고기”? That’s a sign for dog meat. You know you’re truly in the Korean ghetto when the local butchers specialise in dog meat!

Taking in the smell of all this unidentifiable ethnic food made us hungry. We walked over to a Vietnamese restaurant that a couple of Korea food blogs had recommended.

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It’s called Dieu Hien Quan. I love that I have no idea how to pronounce that or what that means!

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The place was covered with gorgeously tacky Chinese New Year decorations. There were a few other diners there, but none of them were Korean. And they were all eating fetal duck eggs! Which I had never seen in real life before! I felt like a foreigner in my own home country. It was great.

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I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a sauce caddy. Just like the ones back home… *sigh*

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I wanted to order the deep fried spring rolls, but Matt’s on a ridiculous diet so we got the summer rolls instead.

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It came out with some sexy looking sauce that bizarrely resembled the Aboriginal flag.

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Really simple fresh rolls – mostly vermicelli with some greens and mystery meat. But tasted so good! Especially with the sauce. Fresh flavours and textures that are unmistakably Vietnamese. I missed you mystery meat!!

And now the moment I had been waiting for. One half of me bursting with anticipation, the other half trying to stay calm, knowing that almost all of the ethnic food I’d eaten in Korea had been a disappointment.

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First the garnishes. There was plenty of coriander… but no Thai basil! Coriander is fine, but the pho I know and love is always served with Thai basil. Surely someone in Korea must grow it. Okay, this was slightly disappointing but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I still had high hopes for the soup.

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I took a deep breath before my first spoonful and said something theatrical like, “Okay, here it is. The moment of truth.”

And… thumbs… are …. UP!

This is good pho. Not the BEST pho I’ve had, but it’s good. Really good. Needless to say, INFINITELY better than the el blando bowls of rice noodles they sell in Seoul. The broth is clean but full of flavour (I added some chopped birdseye chillis to mine for extra heat). Worth an hour on the subway? Definitely yes.

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Matt had chicken pho. Pho is the only time our preferences switch and he always takes the chicken option while I take the beef option. I still don’t understand chicken pho… I feel like pho is in it’s essence a beef based dish. You can choose to have raw beef, beef brisket, or beef tripe, or any other part of the cow! But chicken? Seems wrong. Well, whatever, his life, his choices.

I just realised I didn’t take note of the price. How very unlike me!! That just means it wasn’t cheap enough to excite me, but it wasn’t expensive enough to outrage me. I’m guessing each bowl was around the 8,000-9,000 mark? Seems about right.

Once we we were done, we decided to hit the streets for some dessert.

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I like my dessert savoury, and these big pastries with specks of green were catching my eye. But then I spotted the rolls in the corner that looked like they were filled with chives and possibly, scrambled egg? SOLD.

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Doesn’t look like much but gosh…. this little thing was SO DAMN GOOD. Something about that salty egg and galicky chive combo… one of the best street snacks I’ve had in Korea! And it’s not even Korean! Google tells me that it’s Chinese and called Jiu Cai He Zi. Jiu Cai He Zi, I’m in love with you, and I will come back for more of you.

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Ansan is an adventure. There’s a lot to explore and try, much of it unfamiliar, some of it even a bit scary. It’s like nothing you’ll find anywhere else in Seoul; it is the anti-Itaewon. Just pack a good book and take line 4 all the way down. I’ll be back soon for banh mi, more Jiu Cai He Zi and a Pakistani restaurant a friend recommended. And then I’m going to find a pho place that has Thai basil and actually try that big pancakey thing. This may turn into an Ansan food blog, just warning you.

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Dieu Hien Quan

경기 안산시 단원구 원곡동 788-19번지
031-493-3756
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W.S.P. @ Circa Espresso

WSP is a subset of SP: Western Suburban Pride. There’s a big difference between simply having SP and having WSP. I know people who would happily eat Chinese in Chatswood and Korean in Eastwood (have SP), but are too scared to venture to Auburn for Turkish or Granville for Lebanese chicken (do not have WSP).

One cafe that is waving the WSP banner high is Circa Espresso. At the time I visited, it was only open on weekdays but I somehow managed to sneak in a lunch there (ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies…) – but hip hip hooray because it is now open on Saturdays from 8am to 3pm and will soon open Sundays too!

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The entrance to Circa is tiny but you can’t miss it – just look for the big brick wall covered in wildly coloured graffiti and western suburb hipsters sitting on op-shop furniture.

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In the tight space the shelves are stacked with all things coffee: bags and bags of beans, cups and saucers, grinders, pourers and cold drip coffee makers (which are like the ‘IT’ accessory to have in your cafe these days – if you don’t have one you may as well be McCafe). The message is clear: WE REALLY LOVE COFFEE AND WE TAKE IT VERY SERIOUSLY!

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A box of records – looks good, but do they actually get played? We’ll find out later in this episode.

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The menu and a curious logo that first looks like an octopus but is actually a hand with a coffee bean tied to each finger with string – an ancient tradition practised by Ethiopian tribes who believed that doing so would bring good fortune and a plentiful harvest.

Jokes – I just made that up. The lack of meaningful results for my “coffee beans tied to fingers” Google search indicate that this logo is simply a product of someone’s coffee-obsessed imagination.

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The decor becomes a bit less coffee-specific as you move to the back of the cafe – my favourite were the 4 Mr. Potato Heads and their Russian grandmother.

The bookcases are also filled with volumes of hard cover encyclopaedias which take you back the good ol’ days when you actually had to open up a book to research a school assignment. Nice to know that Britannica and World Book are serving a purpose other than adding to landfill these days.

And now moving on to the beverages…

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Not being a coffee fan – Matt ordered an iced tea. I don’t remember exactly what type (I should really start taking notes…) but it was exotic and floral and quite lovely.

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I ordered the drip coffee of the day over ice. As cool as it is to have a coffee menu as detailed as the food menu, honestly my unsophisticated coffee palate can’t tell the difference between a Colombian single origin and a commercial blend. So as beautiful as this may have tasted to someone who really understands coffee – it was wasted on me. I’ve only JUST reached the point where I can tolerate black coffee – but I still love my foamy capuccinos and I only ever choose the black option when I’m at a cafe like this where adding milk is so sacreligious the barista will probably spit in it.

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While waiting for our food, we opened up a tin of dominoes and played a round. I wanted to stand and topple them, but realised this might get us kicked out of the cafe.

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The day was steaming hot so I ordered a salad – in-house smoked trout salad with poached egg, blood orange, crispy pancetta, shaved fennel, pearl barley, zucchini ribbons & walnuts ($16).

Salad is a science. I think it really takes a lot of creativity, skill and a great understanding of flavours to construct a good salad because it’s all about balance. We want salads to taste healthy, but not to the point where we feel like we’re eating rabbit food – we still want something tasty and substantial. So you add some protein, carbs and dressing – but you can’t overdo this or else you end up with a salad with more calories and fat and less fibre than a burger, which defeats the whole purpose of a salad. You want a variety of textures and flavours – but these need to marry together and not just be a random mix of sweet/sour/savoury/crunchy/soft. You want it to be easy to eat –  all components fitting on one forkful so you can taste everything together. 

Overall, it just needs to be delicious in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being punished for making the ‘healthy choice’ and sends you through a Maccas drive through after lunch.

I say all this, because this salad was the first salad I’ve had in a long time that I actually LOVED and made me wish that more places made salads like this. I rarely order salads because the health and nutrition benefits never outweigh the compromises I need to make in terms of flavour and enjoyment. But the kitchen at Circa proved to me that you can make a lunch-worthy salad that doesn’t make any compromises. It helped that it included some of my favourite ingredients – smoked trout, a poached egg and crispy shards of pancetta. Another thing I thought was really smart was that all the vegetables were shaved into ribbons, which makes them a lot more palatable. It’s the kind of thing you would do to make your kid each more veggies – but it totally works on adults too!

A lot of people who I talk to about Circa don’t seem to have a very high opinion of the food here, but I really hope the salad is still on the menu so you can try it – it is beautiful and it is genius.

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Matt ordered the HCAT (Barossa Valley double smoked free-range ham, avocado mash, vine ripened tomato, gouda cheese, house relish & rocket) which was one MAN-SIZED sandwich. So big I feel like they would need custom-baked bread to make this. It was actually quite simple, like a lunchbox sandwich your mum would make you, but on steroids. Even Matt couldn’t finish it!

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I love that Westies who are also coffee snobs, tea snobs, or brunch snobs have an option like Circa right in our backyard – and I hope this is only the first of many word-class cafes to pop up in the ‘hood. WSP 5eva!

Oh, and about the records…

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… they’re for display only. Elvis sings from the modern day gramophone – an iPhone dock.

Circa Espresso
21 Wentworth Street
Parramatta, NSW, 2150
Circa on Urbanspoon

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Giving the suburbs a fair go at Espresso Organica

I work at a law firm. This means that 90% of my colleagues live either in the Eastern Suburbs or the lower North Shore. In suburbs I have only heard of or have been to once in my life. For example, Double Bay. I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually been to Double Bay. But I hear it’s, like, amazing for brunch.

In this kind of environment, the suburbs get absolutely no respect. In fact, they get dissed. I was actually asked last week, by a straight-faced workmate:

So, in all seriousness, can I ask why you live in North Rocks?”.

Um, since when did people need to justify their place of residence?!  It’s bizarre and a little bit insulting.

Truthfully, and trying really hard not be defensive, I adore the suburbs. I love suburbs like Strathfield, Harris Park and Haberfield that have been taken over entirely by a one ethnic group and create the illusion that you’re in a foreign city. I love the multicultural hubs that combine 20+ different nationalities like Parramatta. And yes, I even love North Rocks. Even though our best restaurant just relocated itself to Chatswood, I love that I can get an $8 rump steak with chips at our local and a dirty kebab at any time of the night at Jimmy’s.

So whenever a suburban restaurant/cafe gets a positive write-up in mainstream media, I get pretty excited. Recently, Circa Espresso in Parramatta won best cafe in the SMH Good Cafe Guide awards which made be surge with S.P. (Suburban Pride) – but they’re annoyingly only open on weekdays so I haven’t yet had the chance to visit.

Another cafe that had been getting a lot of attention is Espresso Organica on Major’s Bay Road in Concord. It had been getting rave reviews from my friends as well, so I visited it a few weeks ago for a sunny Sunday brunch.

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The first impression you get when you walk into the cafe is that it’s HUGE. This is no hipster hole-in-the-wall. Want a venue that’ll take a group booking for 12 people? No worries! You could host a wedding reception in this place, it is that big.

Near the entrance, you’ll see an impressive array of house made desserts – including this golden tray of Galactoboureko, which is semolina milk custard baked in filo pastry with lemon infused syrup. YUM.

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The cafe doubles as a coffee museum – its wall shelves are filled with antique coffee pots, grinders, roasters, and percolators, amongst other random artefacts like cash registers, mandolins and bicycles.

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Clearly, this place takes its coffee very seriously. So I thought it might be the kind of cafe that would have some type of ‘coffee menu’ where you could choose from a few different blends. To my surprise, the drinks menu was very standard. Just a list of flat white, latte, cappuccino, etc. How boring.

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The coffee is beautiful and generous in a large round mug – but taste-wise it was pretty average. As I’ve mentioned, my coffee palate is very dull but I know an AMAZING coffee when I taste one. Like when I had Brother Baba Budan in Melbourne a few years ago. They managed to make a skinny cap taste like heaven – still the best coffee of my life so far.

The menu, like the venue, is massive. 50+ items if you include both all-day-breakfast and lunch – which is rarely a good sign. It’s nice to be spoilt for choice but you know when a menu is this extensive, they can’t possibly do every item well. It seems more like something you’d see on Kitchen Nightmares.

I ordered the eggs benedict with sourdough toast and bacon… which, thinking about it now, isn’t really eggs benedict at all.

Poached eggs on toast is a simple dish. Few things can go wrong. The worst thing that you can do is overcook the egg yolk. Happily, this was not an issue here – the yolks were perfectly soft and runny, as you can see.

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The second worst thing you can do is not properly drain the poaching liquid – leading to a pool of diluted hollandaise sauce and soggy toast, as you can see here:

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Unpleasant… I had to soak up the water with my napkin so my toast wouldn’t become bread pudding.

Also from the all-day breakfast menu, my friends ordered the Brekky Grande with two fried eggs, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, spicy sausage, roasted tomato and hash browns served with sourdough.

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And the Baked Eggs ‘Organica’ 2 eggs baked with wood fired capsicum, cannellini beans and chorizo served with Sourdough toast. Looks a bit overdone to me.

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The boys were very hungry so ordered both the Char Grilled Meats Platter (Chicken tenderloins, lamb souvlaki, spicy sausage, lamb cutlet, rib eye fillet strip served with chips, side salad, & tzatziki dip) and the Char Grilled Seafood Platter (Ocean fresh king prawns, scallops, salt & pepper calamari, mussels, soft shell crab, and wild caught barramundi filet served with lemon wedges, tartar aioli & chips).

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You’ve probably already gotten this impression from the photos, but overall, the food here is pretty ordinary. I honestly don’t see anything that differentiates this place from any other generic cafe you’ll find in a shopping centre or lining Church Street in Parra. Didn’t live up to the hype.

I feel like Espresso Organica is just trying a bit too hard with its book-length menu and antiques roadshow decor. It would work so much better as just a simple coffee house that focuses on top-notch coffee and mediterranean desserts. If I ever go back, it will only be to give the coffee a second chance and try a slice of that Galactoboureko.

We were really full after lunch, so hung out a bit at Canada Bay and then headed back to Major’s Bay road for gelato at the (relatively) new Meno Diciotto. Scoping out the flavours, I couldn’t go past the lemon meringue. After the horrendously disappointing “lemon meringue pie” flavour at Messina (not enough lemon, meringue, or pie – just a slightly tangy vanilla ice-cream), I’ve been on a mission to find a good lemon meringue or pavlova flavoured gelato. Expectations were not high, since my experience at Espresso Organica had dampened my hopes around the suburban food scene generally.

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The verdict? THE BEST LEMON MERINGUE GELATO IN SYDNEY.

Yeah okay I’ve only tried two but this will be hard to beat. Wonderfully tart and lemony, without turning it into a sorbet, with big generous chunks of fluffy meringue mixed through. Officially my favourite gelato flavour… on the planet. Will definitely be back for more.

And just like that, the suburbs were redeemed. Take that Surry Hills!

Espresso Organica
43 Majors Bay Rd 
Concord
Espresso Organica on Urbanspoon

Meno Diciotto
93 Majors Bay Road
Concord
-18° Meno Diciotto Gelataria on Urbanspoon

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